Movers & Shakers: Caroline Crisafulli on Entrepreneurship at OSU, inspiring female entrepreneurs and working in her garden

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How the Director of Innovation at Ohio State ADVANCE is grooming the next generation of women in business

Caroline Crisafulli, Director of Innovation at Ohio State ADVANCE

In the world of academia, business goals and ideas can be the furthest thing from the minds of researchers doing important work. But at The Ohio State University, Caroline Crisafulli is working to change that. Crisafulli is the Director of Innovation at Ohio State ADVANCE, a program aimed at increasing the representation, advancement and recruitment of women faculty in STEM careers. In particular, she heads the REACH for Commercialization program, which helps map pathways for researchers to go from idea to company — or whatever else their goals may be. We sat down with Crisafulli to talk about her background, including her medical device startup, career burnout and how she’s helping to create a network of women starting businesses.

How do you describe the work you do and your role with Ohio State ADVANCE?

What we do in the Ohio State ADVANCE office is amplify the impact of research. The program was originally funded by the National Science Foundation, with the intent to help researchers in STEM fields commercialize their research. Over time we’ve expanded that beyond the traditional STEM background to include arts and humanities, nursing, social work, public health, a wide range of disciplines. It also expanded beyond just faculty to staff and scholars.

Our marketing program is a multi-tiered program called REACH for Commercialization. The core is a set of four workshops that serves as an overview of the commercialization process. We introduced them to the resources within the university and the community, focusing on things like building a team and learning about different funding opportunities. We have other programs on topics like patenting, building a team or funding. A lot of what we’re doing is focusing on demystifying and getting them comfortable with the process and steps of commercialization.

So one of your major focuses is to take a great idea and walk its creator through the process of making it into a business?

Right. The women, and all faculty at the university, do phenomenal research. And the traditional plan has always been research, teaching and then publications. So the idea of commercialization often involves a visceral negative connotation for faculty. But what we’re hoping to do is redefine what commercialization is — we see it as an avenue to amplify the impact of their research. It’s getting their research out beyond academic publications so that they can make a difference and an impact on the world. That’s the motivating factor for the women that we work with. They want to see their research out helping people.

Part of your mission is to build a network for women entrepreneurs. Why is that such an important piece?

That’s a great question. Research shows that men and women network differently. And not having a network in commercialization is a major barrier to that process, because you don’t have people who have that expertise or can give you advice or share the positives and the negatives. So providing that network for them enables them to see women like themselves succeeding. And historically, that’s a smaller percentage of entrepreneurs. Now, that’s changing, and in part due to the resources that are available and the renewed focus on underrepresented minorities.

What are some of the program’s major accomplishments in your time with OSU ADVANCE?

I’ve been with the university full-time for a year and I’ve been a consultant for the program since its inception 10 years ago. In that time, we’ve had 110 women go through the program. Of those 110 women, there are the aggregate 307 patent applications. That’s an amazing accomplishment. When you look at the data from the United States Patent and Trademark Office looking at the main inventors, only 12 percent of those are women, yet 53 percent of all PhDs are awarded to women. Even more compelling is that we had eight women who have started nine companies.

Is commercialization the overall goal when you’re working with these women?

Commercialization is certainly a goal, to create companies for the economic impact and to create jobs. But not all women that we work with are going to necessarily have patent-involved technologies, especially as we’re expanding it to arts and humanities. That’s why another important aspect in this, especially since we’re dealing with faculty, is re-imagining their research. There’s a broad spectrum of impact they can make, because not all students or researchers or PhD candidates are interested in going into academia; there are a very limited number of positions. So a large part of what we’re trying to accomplish is helping women imagine those other opportunities.

What’s your entrepreneurial background?

I came out to Columbus when my husband took a job here. I worked as an administrator for a large surgical practice. After about 20 years of that, I was burned out. So at 40 years old with two small children, I quit my day job and started a company with the senior physician at the practice. That was a rollercoaster. So I have now been able to translate what I learned in that 10 years into helping women. There’s something great about being able to share your experience, a very long list of what not to do. But to be able to share that in good humor with other women who are pursuing entrepreneurial goals, or even just to be able to broaden the impact of their research, and inspire other women is fantastic.

What was your big business idea?

My co-founder was a senior partner in a medical practice where I was working. We started encountering a persistent problem in laparoscopic surgery where the lens glass constantly fogs and debris can get into the lens making it so the surgeon can’t see. It’s a problem that every laparoscopic surgeon faces. So we started a company to solve that problem, not even being sure how we were going to do it. It was a phenomenal experience. As co-founder, you have to learn and become familiar with everything — the science, the brainstorming, the engineers, the patent process. We created a sheet that fits over the laparoscope and diverts air to blow debris away from the lens.

What do you do to take your mind off work in your spare time?

In college, my favorite class was Japanese art. It was that intersection of art and nature and philosophy, and it was fabulous. Today I still love being around flowers. So that’s what I’m doing this summer, spending an awful lot of time renovating a completely over-run backyard into a gardening oasis.

What’s it been like to switch from the entrepreneurial side of the business to mentorship and education?

At a startup, you’re fighting fires all the time. It’s a high-pressure environment where the clock is always ticking. Can you accomplish this before you run out of money? We had a very cohesive and effective team, but my current position at OSU is a dream job because I love to learn. And talking to all of these different faculty with expertise beyond anything that I know, or have experienced, learning what they do and helping them explore possibilities for their research is incredible. So I love my job.

What advice do you find yourself regularly giving to women you work with?

To dream big. At the university, it’s a phenomenal atmosphere. It’s very different from starting a company outside of the university. There are so many resources that are available. If you have a complex problem that you need to solve and you need someone’s help, you can go to that department and find an expert in, say, mechanics to help you solve a problem. All around you, there are resources to help you do this. It would be counterproductive for me to encourage anyone at the university to quit their day job and start a company because the university has such a wealth of resources and flexibility.

You can even take a sabbatical and work on your company for a certain period of time. You can continue to be full-time faculty with up to 20 percent of your time spent on your company. It’s a really good situation, and it’s not the same risk as when you’re outside of the university where you’re quitting your job, mortgaging a house and all of these things. You’ve got a built-in team to help. What we’re really trying to do is pose this opportunity. And it’s not for everybody, certainly. But there are a number of people who never imagined that this is an avenue.

What makes the Columbus entrepreneurial scene a good one?

Columbus is a fabulous place to start a company, particularly as a woman and as an under-represented minority. Organizations like Rev1 Ventures are dedicated to empowering women in under-represented communities. Rev1 believes in what we are doing and they’ve seen the results that we’ve been able to accomplish. There are also an increasing number of seed funding organizations, so the entire continuum’s represented in Columbus and in Ohio. It is a terrific place to start a business.

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